The speaker at the Mothers’ Symposium at Stanford University in 2009 touched a nerve. Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen, stated that her whole life seemed to start shortly after her daughter was born but the one word that stuck in her mind after giving birth was “Stanford.” The mothers in the audience responded with nervous laughter—we all knew only too well what she meant. Karen went on to say that for her, like most mothers today, this was her biggest challenge: how to get her daughter from here to there.
This is what we believe our job is: to manage an outcome; nurturing our children from where they currently are (not quite “good enough”) to an ideal (gaining admission to a top university). How did we get here? And how did mothers come to display parenting behaviors that society labels pathological, ranging from intensive parenting (“helicopter mom”, “narcissistic”, “smother mother”) to resignation (“slow parenting”, “free-range parenting”) to embracing failure by labeling themselves “bad mommies” and celebrating parental short-comings?
A recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell sheds some light on this phenomenon. In “Drinking Games, Gladwell explains that different ethnic groups display totally different drinking behaviors. Yale fraternity brothers drink beer on Friday nights and get reduced to a “raging hormonal frenzy” while first-generation Italians and the Camba (a mestizo people in Bolivia) fail to display any pathologies that typically accompany drinking, despite the hard-core liquor they consume. That drinking precedes alcoholism is obvious but drinking isn’t necessarily followed by alcoholism, according to Mark Keller, editor of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol. The crucial ingredient, Keller believed, had to be cultural. In other words, the frat boys didn’t have to be loud and rowdy, Gladwell states. They were merely responding to their environment. “Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings,” anthropologists MacAndrew and Edgerton concluded. Gladwell questions what it is about our society that raises the drinking age, taxes beer, punishes the drinker for a DUI, and treats alcohol addiction, yet fails to provide a positive and constructive example of how to drink. Culture, he holds, is a powerful tool in shaping drinking behaviors.
So perhaps the way we mother is more influenced by our culture than we think. This being the case, what if the one word that stuck in the mind of a new mom was “fun”, or “joy” or “adventure”, instead of “Stanford”? What if our common understanding about parenting was that it’s a journey filled with great happiness, an intense love-connection with another person that’s unrivaled, and a precious opportunity to nurture the uniqueness of an evolving human being? But perhaps, while we’re dreaming, maybe an even better vision would be if each parent had the freedom to define for herself what parenting means, approaching her role totally unscripted.
This novel path would, most likely, be the one recommended by a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who died in 1980. (I would like to apologize in advance to scholars of Dabrowski for the liberties I’ve taken in applying his theory of personality development to parenting. I hope that he would look favorably on this attempt and forgive any erroneous manipulations of his model). Dabrowski believed that most people live lives of quiet desperation, shaped by the pressures of society and peers, with little introspection, accepting external social and cultural standards with little question, and focusing primarily on survival and financial success. A mother functioning on this level (Level 1) serves as society’s agent, molding her child to achieve in a materialistic world and to display socially-appropriate behaviors. There is little inner-conflict for these individuals, who may be successful in societal terms and their children may appear “healthy” (doing well in school, conforming to community standards, involved in activities valued by others.) However, according to Dabrowski, an individual can’t become fully developed and authentic without first developing their own inner core of beliefs and values, so he deemed life at this level “primitive integration.”
If a parent faces a crisis or unsettling event (and what parent doesn’t!), her perception of herself and her parenting style may temporarily unravel, causing the mother to question what’s meaningful in both her life and her child’s and to have ambivalencies about her parenting decisions. At this level, Level II, the individual resolves the stressful situation by either falling back to Level 1 and returning to the status quo, remaining stuck in prolonged disintegration at Level II, or moving ahead by proactively choosing new values to replace social mores. Dabrowski views this third choice as the first step toward true mental health and inner transformation, moving the individual on to Level III.
This positive disintegration to Level III is furthered by certain inborn traits, including having more intense reactions, called overexcitabilities (OEs), especially intellectual, emotional and imaginational, which allow the individual to perceive reality in a different, more multi-faceted manner. According to James Webb, intellectual OE makes one more likely to ponder and question, emotional OE makes one more sensitive to issues of morality and fairness, and imaginational OE prompts one to envision how things might be. Because these overexcitabilities tend to occur more within the gifted population, parents who are gifted are more likely to reach this level. In addition, I believe having gifted children also enhances one’s potential to positively disintegrate given the fact that our children’s unique needs create the context for us, as their parents, to reject our social environment if it fails to accept and nurture our gifted offspring.
In Level III, the parent continues to strengthen her values and behaviors related to her parenting ideal, and her parenting decisions and behaviors now begin to be measured against her emerging vision of the “higher”—the kind of parent she feels she “ought” to be. Based on this new value structure, her parenting behavior becomes less reactive, less automatic and more deliberate. Moving on to Level IV, the parent now takes full control of her parenting, making conscious choices which affirm or reject various parenting approaches and beliefs, either in herself or her environment. At Level V, the parent experiences inner harmony and integration. Her behavior is guided by conscious, thoughtful decisions based on carefully chosen parenting values and conforming to her own unique inner standard of how one ought to parent. Thus, she experiences little inner conflict. By using her OE’s to help design her own creative expression of parenting, she has developed a truly visionary work– a vision of parenthood unrestrained by culture and convention. At this level, one finds inner peace and true success, living authentically according to one’s own values.
I came across an example of what, I believe, is a Level V mom on a blog in October 2009—“CityMama” written by a woman named Stefania Butler. This entry was written, in part, as a response to the tragic teen suicides over the past year in Palo Alto, which the pastor at her local church addressed in a sermon encouraging parents to be “countercultural.” Stefania stated that the countercultural piece spoke the loudest to her because both she and her husband make countercultural choices as parents every day. She listed these as including: choosing to live simply, not keeping up with the Joneses, limiting media exposure, not over-scheduling, and telling her kids that they don’t have to be good at everything and, even if they fail–they’ll love them no matter what. She went on to share with “kids in the community” that it’s okay to be countercultural, to be true to yourself, accepting yourself and loving yourself just as you are….even, and especially, if you feel like you don’t fit in. She summarized the quality of her family life by concluding: “When you think about it, my kids have everything they need. They have two parents who love them very much. Two parents whose first priority is protecting their childhood and being their best advocates. Two parents to model our “countercultural” values. They have a roof over their heads, healthy food to eat, clothes to wear. Cousins who adore them. Grandparents who spoil them rotten. That seems pretty “rich” to me.”
………and, not one word about Stanford!